A Library of Memories

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Most of the time I’m pretty happy that I don’t have small kids anymore. My kids are 21 and 24, so I no longer have to make them snacks all the time or help them with school projects. They never throw tantrums in Target anymore. It’s great. Most of the time, I’m just fine with the kids being grown.

Until recently, that is, when I visited the children’s section of my local library, where I was seized with the urge to either have a kid or BE a kid again, just to soak up all the wonder and sheer awesomeness there. I haven’t been to the library in a couple of years—shame on me. And I haven’t been to the children’s section in well over a decade, I’m sure.

First of all, it smelled exactly the same. That sweet old book smell, combined with that clean, air-conditioned, industrial carpet smell, and some kind of paste—that’s how my library smells. It’s right up there with cut grass and summer pine on my list of favorite smells. You can’t stand around in the children’s section and huff the air because that might alarm the parents in the vicinity, but if it were socially acceptable, I might have hyperventilated trying to suck in more of that smell.

Second, there are still giant paper mache creatures there. When I was a kid, they had a stegosaurus that I took for life-size, although I didn’t actually know how big a stegosaurus is supposed to be and I still don’t, but I remember that thing was huge. Maybe it seemed that way because I was about three and half feet tall at the time, but still. Giant.  Now, they have all kinds of animal heads mounted on the wall like trophies, but instead of looking like tragic, taxidermied safari victims, they look like happy, playful animals who’ve only just poked their heads through the wall for a minute. And they appear to be quite large, even at my current size.

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There is still an events calendar with activities that are still exciting to me, although I am about 35 years too old to participate: mask making, a World Rhythm party, Pajama Story Time… activities that I would undoubtedly appreciate way more than your average elementary school kid. Pajama Story Time? Are you kidding me? How do I get in on that?

Anyway, I went into the kids’ section to check out a copy of The Secret Garden, which I’m re-reading in preparation for a writing project I’m working on. I needed a timeless children’s novel written prior to the 1930s, and The Secret Garden has always been one of my favorites. But as soon as I got to the library, I remembered: the whole library is my favorite.

I spent a lot of time in the library as a kid. I remember summer reading contests, with badges and coloring pages and lists of books you could check off as you read them. I remember craft workshops and musical productions and Easter egg hunts. I remember a Library Pet Show, where my box turtle, Emily, got a prize for “Most Unusual.” (I also remember burning with jealousy over a glossy, black rabbit that another girl brought to the pet show in a picnic basket, like Dorothy carrying Toto. If you asked what was in the basket, she’d dramatically lift the lid and let you peek in at the rabbit like she was revealing The Mysteries of the Universe. I loved my turtle but goddamnit, I wanted that rabbit in a picnic basket.)

I remember helping my little brother, eight years younger than me, choose books from that same library. And of course, when my kids were born, I took them, too. Oddly, those memories are the least clear; I think I was too exhausted and frazzled to retain sharp copies of those.

Now my kids are technically adults, and even though I’ve sternly warned them not to attempt procreation til they’re at least 30, I secretly can’t wait for them to have babies. I need an excuse to hang around the Children’s section without looking like a weirdo.

In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for my own Pajama Story Time. With wine. Me, in my sloppy gray night shirt, an amazing children’s book written in 1911, and a chardonnay bottled in 2013.

I’ll do this at home, of course.

 

Let The Wild Rumpus Never End!

Maurice Sendak died.

My sister suggested I blog about it, because she knows I love Maurice Sendak. I’m trying. The truest post, if I could swing it, would be a big blank page, room-size, with those three words in the middle and that’s it: Maurice Sendak died.

I would sit in front of that big, blank page and cry, and then I would really, really want some crayons. I would color all around those words in blue scribbles and I wouldn’t even try to make them look like Wild Things. Then I would invite some neighbor kids in to color with me. That would be a little creepy– that crying lady with the blue crayons wants us to color with her—but the kids would respond just right. I would tell those kids to draw whatever they want—what they’re scared of, what comforts them, what they ate for breakfast.  I would ask them to draw something from their favorite story, and I hope one of those kids would draw a Wild Thing. We would fill up that giant page until it became a forest, and maybe an ocean would tumble by with a private boat for Meg… to remember Maurice Sendak.

I clearly remember reading Where the Wild Things Are when I was little. I remember being shocked at Max—he chased his dog with a fork!—and then feeling sorry for him, sitting up in his room without any supper. I remember the scratchy lines of the illustrations and the soft, greyish colors and knowing just how that room felt. It felt like winter, when dark comes early and you can’t play outside so you make up inside stuff, and that’s how you get into trouble. Yes, my childhood self empathized with Max, yes you have been very bad, and now you’re mad at everyone and sad at yourself because you know you shouldn’t have chased the dog. You’ve had a tantrum, and you’re tired from crying, and you still want to be angry but you want your mom more. Max was my people.

Even more clearly, I remember reading Where the Wild Things Are to my son. Like every kid who’s ever been introduced to that book, Mo loved it, and we read it until he knew it by heart. I can still hear him reciting it in his biggest little voice, with the consonants mixed up. If you have ever heard a two-year-old yell, “LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!” then you probably share my soft spot for Maurice Sendak.

As a parent, the lovely part of that book was the opportunity to hear my kids’ interpretation. Sendak left whole pages free of words so that we could make our own.  My kids would wait expectantly for me to continue the narrative, but instead I would ask questions. “Which Wild Thing is the scariest? Which is the funniest? Which one would you ride on if you were Max?”

What a genius Sendak was, to create a book with such lasting appeal that my children love it as much as I do. What it must have felt like for him to know that for almost 50 years, parents and children snuggled together and imagined themselves in the world he created.

Nothing I could write would do him justice: his humor, the simple elegance of his words, his perspective on humanity, his respect for the intelligence of children.  His stories remind us that dealing with reality requires a certain deftness of imagination that children possess naturally and adults must cultivate.

While I’ve only mentioned Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s legacy is extensive. You probably remember Little Bear, and Chicken Soup with Rice…so many. The year my son was born, he released We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, a sad and stirring picture book that reminds us that much of reality doesn’t make sense, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

So good-bye, Maurice Sendak. Readers the world over are roaring terrible roars and gnashing terrible teeth for you. I hope that your dinner is waiting for you on the other side, and it is still hot.